St. Anthony’s Church, White River Junction, Vermont

St. Anthony’s Church on Church Street in White River Junction, around 1900. Image from The Gateway of Vermont: Hartford and its Villages (1903).

The church in 2018:

During its early history, Catholicism was not particularly common in Vermont, where the majority of its settlers had English ancestry. However, the arrival of railroads in the mid-19th century led to an influx of Irish railroad workers to places such as White River Junction, which had become an important rail hub. As a result, a Catholic parish was established here in 1869 as St. Anthony’s Church, and in 1898 the parish constructed this High Victorian Gothic-style church on Church Street, near the corner of Gates Street.

The church was built of brick and trimmed with granite, and it was constructed at a cost of $30,000. It  was dedicated on October 30, 1898 by Bishop John Stephen Michaud of Burlington, in a ceremony that was attended by about a thousand people. The pastor of the church, William N. Lonergan, also participated in the services, and the sermon was delivered by the Reverend D. J. O’Sullivan of St. Albans.

The first photo here was taken within a few years after the church was completed. More than a century later, the church is still standing, although it has seen a few exterior changes during this time. From this angle, the most notable change is the ground floor of the front facade. The central doorway is now flanked on either side by two smaller doors, and the steps in front of it have been enlarged. The doorways at the base of each tower have also been reconstructed, and the doors are now at ground level, without the steps or the pointed arches above the doors. Otherwise, though, the exterior remains well-preserved, and the church is still in use as an active Roman Catholic parish.

Junction House, White River Junction, Vermont (2)

The Junction House, at the corner of South Main Street and Gates Street in White River Junction, around 1900. Image from The Gateway of Vermont : Hartford and its Villages (1903).

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in the previous post, the first Junction House was built here in 1849. It was located on land that had previously been the farm of Samuel Nutt, but his property became far more valuable in the late 1840s, when this area became one of the most important railroad crossroads in northern New England. Anticipating the need for a hotel, Nutt purchased the Grafton House in nearby Enfield, New Hampshire, dismantled it, and rebuilt it here in the newly-created village of White River Junction.

This original building stood here for nearly 30 years, and during this time it provided meals and accommodations for rail travelers, while also serving as a meeting place for locals. However, like many wood-frame hotels of the period, it was vulnerable to fire, and it ultimately burned on August 10, 1878, after a fire began in the kitchen and spread throughout the structure.

The owner at the time, Asa T. Barron, quickly rebuilt the hotel with the building shown in the first photo. It was completed in 1879, and it was about one and a half times larger than its predecessor, with four floors and a capacity of about 200 guests. The exterior design was somewhat of a blend of Second Empire and Queen Anne styles, and it was topped by a Mansard roof and towers on either end of the main facade.

Upon completion, the new hotel was praised by the Green Mountain Freeman of Montpelier, which declared that it will “take rank among the best of our many first-rate Vermont hotels.” In the same article, the newspaper provided the following description of the building:

The front is shaded by a fine wide piazza, which gives a comfortable lounging place or a fine promenade. On the first floor is a reception room, hall, billiard room, wash room, office and proprietor’s private office, a boot and shoe store, drug store and watch-maker’s shop. Leaving the office for the dining room one enters a fine, large room, lighted on both sides, finished in brown ash (carefully selected for its beauty) finished in Eastlake style, joining which is a perfectly appointed kitchen. A broad, handsome stairway leads to the next story, where are reception room, ladies’ parlor, bath room, closets, etc., besides rooms in suites and handsome single rooms. The rooms on each of the other floors are of the same size, furnished in the same style, and all are furnished with black walnut, marble-topped chamber sets, and the excellent spring beds are furnished with 40 pound pure hair mattresses and nice blankets.

Within a year after the new hotel opened, it was again threatened by fire, this time from an attempted arsonist in July 1880. The perpetrator, who was apparently never identified, ignited rags and shavings in the basement in the middle of the night. However, it was extinguished soon after the night clerk discovered it, and it caused minimal damage to the building.

In 1887, the Junction House played a role in the aftermath of a far more serious disaster. At 2:10 a.m. on February 5, a northbound passenger train departed the depot here in White River Junction, across the street from the hotel. It was headed for Montreal, but just ten minutes later the four rear cars were derailed by a broken rail at a bridge less than five miles northwest of here. The cars fell off the bridge, landed on the thick ice over the White River, and caught fire when the coal stoves and kerosene lamps toppled over. The fire subsequently ignited the wooden bridge, and the burning timbers began raining down on top of the cars.

About 115 people were in these cars, and many found themselves trapped within the burning wreckage. Further compounding the problem was the air temperature, which was 20 degrees below zero, meaning that those who survived the flames were then at risk of hypothermia. Ultimately, an estimated 37 people died in the disaster, many of whom were burned beyond recognition. Among the dead was Frank L. Wesson of Springfield, Massachusetts, the son of Smith & Wesson co-founder Daniel B. Wesson.

Of the survivors, about 50 were injured, and the Junction House became a temporary hospital, along with the Pease Hotel in the nearby village of Hartford. Frank Wesson’s sister-in-law, Emily Lovell, was brought here to the Junction House, but she had only minor injuries, so she spent most of her time here tending to others. Some of the more seriously hurt passengers here at the hotel included Andrew Wheeler of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, whose injuries were described as “a bad cut over his eyes, bruised all over and somewhat burned, although not fatally hurt.” Another Fitchburg resident, Joseph Jacques, was also here at the hotel, with “a broken leg, a broken nose and serious bruises on the body,” in addition to frostbite on one of his feet.

Even as the injured were still recovering here, the state was already beginning its investigation. Just two days after the disaster, the Vermont Railway Commission convened here at the Junction House. The commission was chaired by former Governor Samuel E. Pingree, and the sessions here were also attended by then-Governor Ebenezer J. Ormsbee and Lieutenant Governor Levi K. Fuller. They heard testimony from various railroad employees and expert witnesses, and concluded that the broken rail had been defective. This, combined with the extremely cold temperatures and the fact that it was located at a slight curve in the tracks, caused it to break as the train passed over it. The commission also faulted the Central Vermont Railroad for using stoves and kerosene lamps, and reasoned that many of the victims would have otherwise survived the disaster if not for this practice.

Following this disaster, the Junction House continued to operate as an important railroad hotel, and in 1901 it was purchased by Lyman A. Gibbs and Nathaniel P. Wheeler for $50,000. The first photo was taken around this time, and it was published in the book The Gateway of Vermont : Hartford and its Villages in 1903, which provided the following description of the hotel:

The two hundred rooms of the house are maintained in perfect order, and the hotel’s cuisine, table, service and general accommodations are of a character that have won for the house a reputation throughout New England and the east. So many are the hotel’s daily guests that it in effect constitutes a community in itself, larger indeed than many a village. This daily assembly is preeminently a gathering of commercial men and representative of the country’s chief business interests. The management of the house is considerate, business-like and above all tactful. Large as it is and great as are the number of its guests there is that atmosphere about the house that causes the guest to feel at home, whether he be millionaire or commercial traveler on his initial trip. The house has every requisite of a hotel as respects heating, lighting, billiard room, barber shop, local and long distance telephones, and all else, but this does not mean that it has a bar for it has none, nor ever has had under its present management.

Under the ownership of Gibbs and Wheeler, the Junction House nearly doubled in size, bringing its total to 340 guest rooms. Then, in 1919, Gibbs sold his share of the business to Wheeler, who became the sole owner. A few years later, in January 1925, he renamed it the Hotel Coolidge, in honor of his close friend John C. Coolidge, a resident of Plymouth, Vermont whose son Calvin had just been re-elected as president.

However, only weeks later the building caught fire, on the evening of January 29, 1925, after an oil heater exploded on the second floor. All of the nearly 200 guests were safely evacuated, but the wood-frame hotel was quickly engulfed in flames and was a total loss. The fire caused the village’s electrical system to short circuit, leaving White River Junction in darkness, and it posed a serious threat to the surrounding buildings. The Boston Herald noted that local fire and police officials had initially called it a “1000 to 1 chance” of saving the rest of the village, but the responding firefighters, including crews from across the river in Hanover, Lebanon, and West Lebanon, New Hampshire, were ultimately able to prevent the flames from spreading.

Within a matter of weeks, Nathaniel Wheeler began construction on a new Hotel Coolidge building here on the same spot. Like the two previous hotels, it was built of wood, although it had a brick veneer on the South Main Street facade. In order to expedite its reopening, the front portion of the hotel was originally only two stories in height, with three stories along the Gates Street side of the building. It opened later in 1925, and in 1926 the front of the building was completed, with the addition of a third floor and two towers that echoed the appearance of its predecessor.

At the time, White River Junction was still a thriving railroad center, and the new Coolidge remained its leading hotel. A 1927 newspaper advertisement listed the room rates at $2.50 per night, or $3 for a room with a bath. According to another ad a few years later, the hotel had a total of 175 rooms, including 60 with tub baths and 40 with shower baths. During this time, its guests included President Coolidge himself, who visited here in May 1929 and spent a few nights at the hotel while on a fishing trip, two months after the end of his second term as president.

Both White River Junction and the Hotel Coolidge owed their existence to the railroads that brought prosperity to this village, but by the mid-20th century passenger rail travel was in a steep decline across the country. The village was also bypassed by the interstate highway system, with Interstates 89 and 91 meeting about a mile to the west of here. However, throughout this time the Hotel Coolidge has remained open, and it has retained much of its historic appearance on both the interior and exterior. Very little has changed in this scene since the mid-1920s, and the hotel’s neighbor to the right—the 1890 Gates Block⁠—is also still standing, as the only surviving building from the first photo. Both it and the hotel, along with many other buildings in the village, are now part of the White River Junction Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Junction House, White River Junction, Vermont

The Junction House on South Main Street in White River Junction, around 1865-1878. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2018:

The village of White River Junction is located within the town of Hartford, Vermont, on the New Hampshire border at the confluence of the White River and Connecticut River. Hartford’s original town center is located about a mile to the west of here, along the banks of the White River, but by the second half of the 19th century much of the town’s commercial activity had shifted here to White River Junction, thanks in large part to the advent of rail travel.

The late 1840s saw a frenzy of railroad construction in Vermont, and this site became an important hub in the state’s rail network. By the end of the decade, four rail lines converged here, with the Vermont Central Railway from the northwest, the Connecticut River Railroad from the south, the Connecticut and Passumpsic Rivers Railroad from the north, and the Northern New Hampshire Railroad from the east. A fifth railroad, the short 14-mile Woodstock Railroad, subsequently opened to the west of here in 1875, connecting White River Junction to Woodstock, Vermont.

Prior to the construction of these rail lines, this part of Hartford was sparsely populated, with only a few farms and a one-room schoolhouse. One of these farmers was Samuel Nutt, who had lived here since 1817 and owned about 500 acres of land. The rail lines met right near his house, and he was quick to recognize the strategic location of this property. By 1849 he had purchased the Grafton House hotel in nearby Enfield, New Hampshire, dismantled it, and rebuilt it here in White River Junction, as shown in the first photo. It was named the Junction House, and it thrived on business from the railroads, providing both meals and overnight accommodations for travelers.

Throughout the 1850s, advertisements for the Junction House regularly appeared in local newspapers, promising “Meals in readiness on the arrival of each train of Cars” along with “Horses and Carriages to Let.” One newspaper, the Independent Democrat of Concord, New Hampshire, published glowing remarks about the hotel in 1852 while describing a short layover here at White River Junction:

Here, being informed that we had half an hour’s waiting to do for the up-river train, most of our company—ourself in particular—went over to the Junction House, situated a few rods from the Depot, where we found a well-set and well-furnished table, at which we replenished the inner man to our hearts’—perhaps we should say bowels’—content. The Junction House is a new, commodiously built house, kept by Mr. H. F. Willis, who understands himself and the wants of his guests.

Three years later, the Vermont Phoenix of Brattleboro provided similar praise:

The “Junction House” at White River Junction, is one of the neatest and best managed hotels we have ever visited in Vermont; and, what is of more consequence to the proprietor, it does a capital business. Being favorably located for public travel it receives and entertains the travellers of three trains which have their terminus nightly at the Junction. Col. Samuel Nutt is the popular landlord who does the honors of the house, and he is very efficiently assisted by Mr. Wm. H. Witt, formerly of this village. The journey to Montpelier is made exceedingly pleasant and convenient by stopping over night under such care and with such excellent keeping.

Along with serving travelers, though, the hotel was also a meeting place for locals. During the 1850s and 1860s it was used for a variety of events, including railroad shareholder meetings, agricultural society meetings, public auctions, and nominating conventions for political parties. Most of these political conventions were for local and congressional district races, but the 1856 Republican state convention was held here in White River Junction, in a tent near the hotel. The event drew over two thousand attendees, but not all approved of the location, with the Middlebury Register writing:

We regret to close by hoping that the people of this state will never be called again to White River Junction for a similar purpose. The location is absurdly inconvenient, and a good many complaints of petty extortion at the Junction House, have reached our ears. One dollar for a hard dinner, at a Mass Convention of plain farmers, is cutting it rather fat.

By this point, Samuel Nutt was no longer running the hotel. He sold it earlier in 1856 to C. S. Hambleton, who was evidently responsible for making the attendees pay a dollar for dinner. Although it seems trivial now, this was a substantial amount of money at the time, equivalent to nearly $30 today. This controversy aside, the hotel continued to prosper in the years that followed.

However, in 1863 the owner at the time, Asa T. Barron, faced some legal trouble, first when one of the boarders accused him of assault. He was ultimately absolved after it was discovered that the boarder had instigated the disturbance and Barron had acted out of self defense. Just a few months later, though, Barron faced more serious trouble when he sold liquor here despite the state’s strict prohibition laws. He was found guilty of 36 violations, for which he was fined $360.

Barron continued to run the Junction House throughout the 1860s and 1870s, and the first photo was almost certainly taken during his ownership. It shows the view from near the railroad depot, looking southwest across the tracks. The village was still only lightly developed at the time, and the photo shows a gravel bank on the side of the hill beyond the hotel. An 1869 map of the village shows only a handful of buildings along this section of South Main Street, and most of these appear to have been houses, with the exception of the Junction House and a nearby store that was operated out of a converted farmhouse.

The original Junction House stood here until 1878, when it was destroyed by a fire on the morning of August 10. The fire began in the kitchen, and it soon spread throughout the building. Without any local fire companies, it took about an hour for firemen and equipment to arrive by train from Hanover and Lebanon, New Hampshire. By this point, the hotel was beyond saving, but the firemen were able to prevent it from spreading to other nearby structures.

The fire caused an estimated $50,000 in damage to the property, only about half of which was insured. Apparently, not everyone saw the fire as a tragedy, though. Writing just over a decade later in History of Hartford, Vermont, July 4, 1761-April 4, 1889, author William Howard Tucker argued that “It was a den of wickedness and its destruction should have been regarded by the senior proprietor thereof as the natural sequence of the unrestricted looseness that characterized his system of running this public house.”

Such disapproval notwithstanding, the Junction House was soon rebuilt. The new building was completed in 1879, and it was about one and a half times larger than the old one, featuring room for about 200 guests and a hall that could seat about a thousand. It was four stories in height, and it had two towers, which were located on either end of the front facade. Asa Barron still owned the hotel at the time, but he sold the property within about a year of the completion of the new building.

The new Junction House remained an important hotel into the 20th century. It was eventually expanded to 340 rooms, and in 1925 it was renamed the Hotel Coolidge in honor of the owner’s close friend, John C. Coolidge, the father of then-President Calvin Coolidge. Many evidently assumed that it had been named for the president, and the Caledonian Record of St. Johnsbury humorously observed that the change was done “probably in the hope that it will be quieter at night,” in reference to Calvin Coolidge’s famously silent demeanor.

Only a few weeks later, though, the newly-renamed hotel also burned. This time, it was caused by an oil heater that exploded on the second floor. As with the fire nearly a half century earlier, crews from New Hampshire arrived to fight the flames, but the building was a total loss. The fire also destroyed eight stores on the ground floor, but all of the guests were safely evacuated from the hotel and there was no loss of life.

As before, the hotel was quickly rebuilt, and this time it was constructed of brick. Its exterior lacked the ornamentation of the previous hotel, but it featured two towers that echoed those of its predecessor. This building has now stood here for longer than the two earlier ones combined, and it remains the Hotel Coolidge nearly a century after it was completed. During this time, it has even hosted its namesake president in May 1929, when Coolidge spent several days at the hotel while on a fishing trip, several months after leaving the White House.

Today, with the decline of rail travel, White River Junction is no longer the bustling railroad hub that it once was. The area is still at the juncture of two major transportation routes, with Interstates 89 and 91 crossing just to the west of here, but the highways bypass the village itself. However, many of the historic buildings in the center of White River Junction have survived over the years, including the Hotel Coolidge and the surrounding commercial buildings, such as the large 1890 Gates Block on the right side of this scene, and the c.1910 Greenough Block, located beyond the hotel on the left side. All of these buildings, along with a number of others in the area, are now part of the White River Junction Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.